Saturday, September 27, 2008


CEBU Press Freedom Week has become a stepping stone for many students over the years.

For opportunity-strapped schools, the fora, exhibits, movies and other events sponsored by the local media and companies are a boon. This year’s lineup, which culminated yesterday, showed the diversity of opportunities for work in communications: lifestyle (not just hard news) reporting, online journalism, convergence in newsrooms and corporate communications.

These are welcome developments since local schools offering Mass Communications have grown from three to seven. For students who feel trapped between call centers and newsrooms, it is reassuring to know there’s a smorgasbord of employment that will tap their training and compensate them better for their diplomas as graduation often means more family responsibilities.

For the few but determined to work in journalism, Cebu Press Freedom Week allows several glimpses of the rigors and the rewards of covering one’s community. Although journalists’ salaries have fallen behind the leaps of technology and multi-tasking, some students still overcome their undergraduate ambivalence about newsroom careers to take that leap of faith.

In the four Press Freedom events I’ve attended this week, I counterchecked that a significant number of new reporters and correspondents for local newspapers and the TV networks were schooled in local colleges. The newsroom practice of hiring Mass Com graduates promotes professionalism, journalism practiced according to standards and ethics.

Hopefully, the newbies will eventually follow other colleagues that have made time in their tight schedules to lecture to college students about journalism, broadcasting and even Cebuano. As former UP Cebu student leader and now Sun.Star Cebu reporter Jujemay G. Awit commented about former Sun.Star reporter, now lawyer, Rosemarie O. Versoza, who lectures on the law and mass media at UP Cebu and volunteers for the Cebu Media Legal Aid, professionals teaching college undergraduates is a way of “paying forward” to the community.

I’d like to think that the Mass Com graduates who end up in other professions cultivate a lifelong healthy skepticism, which, coupled with their college training, makes them effective as critical news consumers and citizen journalists.

But Cebu Press Freedom Week also reminds me of the others. Since it was launched 14 years ago, the celebration is timed with Sept. 21, the day martial law was imposed in the country, muzzling the freedom of the press and other rights for years.

This year, Cebu Press Freedom Week is made poignant by the death of Rachel Mae Palang, killed last September 18 after the group she was with clashed with army soldiers in the town of Dauin, Negros Oriental.

Initially, there was some confusion when some misheard that the incident involved a UP Cebu student. The rumors were dispelled last Sept. 24, when UP Mass Com senior Rachel Chloe Palang stood up to ask Sun.Star editors during the “Reaching out to Future Journalists” forum how journalists can handle being harassed by sources.

Seeing Chloe made me think of the other Rachel. Then a student, distinguished in her nursing studies and campus press duties, Rachel Mae was a source interviewed by a former student whose angle about press freedom focused on campus journalism.

Reading my student’s drafts, I was drawn to Rachel Mae. Though swamped by the academic demands of her school and course, traditionally one of the most apathetic to student activism, she broke the mold by getting her campus publication to focus on student welfare, such as access to school services.

Many of us, working journalists, trace our start to the campus paper. Long before journalism teachers required publication of article assignments in dailies and newsroom editors opened sections to contributions from campus journalists, the campus paper was the furnace stoking our inchoate passions.

When our pens and keyboards found their groove, we all moved on: worked in newsrooms for our bread and butter or because we believe the truth is out there and it could set us free.

This column is dedicated to all those who believe. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 28, 2008

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Green sap rising

PALPABLE as a pear was the silence that received the closing lines of Carolyn Forché’s prose poem, “The Colonel.”

“… The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves… He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.”

One Friday afternoon, I sat behind a group of writers participating in the “Mugna sa Pagsulat,” a writer’s symposium organized by the University of the Philippines in the Visayas Cebu College (UPVCC).

Poet and Ateneo teacher Larry Ypil was asked to read Forché by UPV Tacloban professor Merlie Alunan to illustrate the importance of point of view in storytelling.

I joined the group only after lunch and was unable to hear their morning interactions with Larry, speaking on poetry, and University of San Carlos professor emeritus, Dr. Resil Mojares, discoursing on creative non-fiction. I had no gauge to assess the writers: how well they read, if they ate words for breakfast, or slept with them.

But the sight of so many school uniforms in the group made me perceive the hall as filled with young writers. Inevitably, this idea summoned two other phrases: “green sapling rising” and “the promise of new fruit.”

Whether the metaphors applied to the group as promise or cliché I could not make up my mind on until I heard them after Larry read the last of Forché’s lines.

In truth, the group said nothing at all. Even though Merlie negotiated the world of the colonel with them, picked out the images the poet flung about like trophy ears, no one seemed able to say anything that came close to explaining what Forché must have lived through when she worked with Amnesty International in El Salvador in the 1970s.

But for the silence.

The silence of the hall after Larry read the end of the poem was eerie. As a teacher of more than two decades, I am familiar with the effects of certain works. Essays are the classic headscratchers and ignite a pandemonium of ear-pulling. Many youths are raised to paroxysms by photographs and lyrics; utterly depressed by news writing.

But a poem that opens a fissure of silence has not spent itself, just given life to echoes ricocheting inside its listeners.

I found the silence eerie not only because a poem is usually just an unfortunate casualty, subjected to class postmortems and dissections that bleed sawdust and theories.

I found the silence of that hall filled with school uniforms eerie because many of the writers are young enough to know Martial Law only as a footnote in history books, and Ferdinand Marcos as the man who may or may not have killed the father of Kris. Those school uniforms are probably part of campus papers that will never volunteer for fact-finding missions that try to trace what is left of a hinterland community that’s just oozing and ripening beneath shallow mass graves.

And yet for the silence.

It is true that one must have lived to create a song, a painting, a poem. But the sap is greenest and the hunger is keenest when one is just beginning.

Perhaps our tragedy is that we pour resources into staging political showdowns between old dogs with old tricks. Shouldn’t we be holding more workshops to make us read more, create more, live more?

Or partake more of the pleasure in witnessing green sap rising. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 21, 2008 issue

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ruminating on ruminants

GOATS can haul us out of poverty.

To encourage more Filipinos to invest in these excellent sources of meat and income, the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD) published a goat-raising book and maintains an online message board, which attempts to answer all questions one can think of about goat breeding. (For instance, how many goats can fit inside one hectare of grazing land? The answer from Los Baños: six mature animals during the wet season; during drought, if native pasture is planted with legumes and grasses, 10-12 bucks and does.)

But the opening line of this column, and the brainstorm it spawned in me, was not sourced from PCARRD’s “The Philippine Recommends for Goat Farming.”

I have to credit Juan. Then nine-year-old, he blurted this statement out when he was in possession of a failed quiz on Friday night. In our household, this is the schedule for dispersing weekend rewards, such as computer time for games.

Perhaps reflecting that decades in school surely doomed him to the perpetual agony of gaming withdrawal, Juan declared that he would stop studying and be a farmer.

Okay, I agreed, cool as cucumber. But you’ll have to raise plants in pots since that would be all the land we own. No cows, I added as an afterthought, remembering my feline cabal and what it might do to any slow and placid animal silly enough to stray into their enclave.

That’s when Juan decided on goats.

As a former community extension worker in the uplands, I see no fault in my son’s logic (let’s not go into his motives).

A goat is a type of herbivore called a ruminant. As I told my son, his four-chambered stomach makes the goat efficient at feeding. Food goes to the first chambers for initial digestion. Then the cud moves out from the rumen and reticulum into the mouth where the goat “chews the cud” some more. He then slides it back to the last chambers, the omasum and the abomasum, before taking on another mouthful.

Eww, said my farmer.

Goats need less water because of the moisture in plants, I replied brightly, ignoring the spittle Juan was trying to dribble, in imitation of a drought-resistant goat.

From livestock traders that met regularly in Mantalongon, Barili, I learned that imported and upgraded breeds were desired but the bottom line in fixing the price was the size and the meatiness of the goat.

Though often portrayed in children’s literature as a solitary and idiosyncratic fellow more at home among rocks than with other creatures, a goat needs care from its human owners, if not to carry off handsome portraits while framed against a cliff then at least to look attractive, cut up and garnished, on the platter.

In a goat dispersal project, more crucial than hybrid pedigrees is the recipients’ expertise and commitment to care for the animals. Humans have to construct sheds, raise napier or forage, cut and feed these to the livestock, and give dewormers and vitamins—all these efforts just so goats can have a thriving sex life.

For as in all dispersal exercises, procreation is the end-all and be-all: get the does to produce kids (one of which is turned over to the next recipient or goat raisers’ association as “payment”) and bucks to mount does (so its owner can also earn from stud fees).

I skipped this portion of the lecture with Juan.

Unlike noisy cats and indiscreet dogs, goats make a pretty good impersonation of long-haired ascetics. Even though the English language is replete with sexually implicit expressions, from “buck naked” to “old goat,” the animals are publicly fastidious and dignified despite all our capering about and monitoring of their private lives.

Last month, while Juan fed and pulled around a white kid we named after him in the upland barangay of Guadalupe in the town of Alegria, I wondered if my son had stumbled on the secret that will liberate us from, if not poverty, al least scapegoat voyeurism. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 14, 2008 issue

We the living

I SLIPPED out of a library consultation to get a mass card before the church office closed for lunch. Priests take the longest break in this country, and I wasn’t sure if their offices also kept the same siesta hours.

She and her son were seated on the stairs outside the church office. They might have waited there all morning. Or all their life.

I was in a hurry to go back. She should have been gripped by the same urgency. It looked as if her kid had not eaten breakfast or dinner or meals before that.

It was hard to look at him. I could say that it was why I looked at her instead but that isn’t the truth. I was just in a hurry and she was sitting in the way.

Sister, can you spare something for lunch? We have not yet eaten breakfast.

I pointed to the desk. This was not in answer to her appeal. This was just the natural reflex of someone who thinks the hungry is someone else’s problem.

But she apparently took my careless gesture as a response, more than what she expected from anyone that day. She followed me inside the office.

While I spelled out the name of my deceased tiyo on the slip of paper, she stood beside me. She ignored the church worker answering phones beyond the glass partition. But her thin voice, directed at that glass screen, fairly trembled in indignation.

I’ve asked them for help but they won’t give me rice.

The phone rang again. Before answering this, the church worker spoke to the glass: I told you that we don’t distribute the rice anymore. Go see Ms. SoandSo in the office next to ours.

Uncertain, I held on to the slip of paper, my petition for my tiyo’s eternal rest.

The woman told me: Since morning, I’ve been here. They won’t give me rice because Ms. SoandSo says I’m always turning up in her weekly list of 50 recipients. How can that be? I don’t see her fat face every week so how can she say she sees mine?

The phone was finally silent, or perhaps was now on siesta. The church worker took my petition and my money, and disappeared. We listened to the sound of typing. When the worker reappeared, waving the mass card to dry the ink, the woman began again.

What does Ms. SoandSo have against me? Will she believe her list more than our hunger?

Don’t take offense, sister. Ms. SoandSo is just having a tantrum and has closed the NFA today.

This reference to the National Food Authority was made by a woman who just stepped inside the office. The phone rang. The worker listened briefly and then told the second woman to pop into the next office and tell Ms. SoandSo to answer a call.

The NFA is closed today, the second woman repeated. But she still went out to check. When she came back and saw that a priest had just entered the office behind the partition, she perked up and greeted him: Here is Father. Hello, do you have good news for us? Ms. SoandSo is not giving rice today.

How long does typewriter ribbon ink dry? I wondered. The priest kept looking down. I wondered if he was avoiding her question or our eyes. But then he found the tape dispenser and secured strips to affix a label for a package he left behind.

He then spread his hands as if to bless the women waiting for his answer: you are better-off than I am because I come from a poor province while you are living in Cebu City.

What brought you this far, Father? Asked the second woman. I came from Danao. Now it looks like I’m going back without any rice to bring home.

While I was thinking if being poor in logic makes one a better priest, the church worker finally handed over the mass card. The wall clock showed it was noon.

Before I could escape, the mother of the boy slumped against the wall outside appealed again to me: sister, can you spare anything for lunch?

Had the choice been given to him, my tiyo, who hardly stayed sober for most of his 66 years, would have not dithered over his choice: rather than bribe to secure eternal rest for a soul, better feed the hungry, who will always be with us. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 7, 2008 issue